A Daughter's Homecoming (Love Inspired)

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9780373817498: A Daughter's Homecoming (Love Inspired)
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HOME TO STAY
Gabriella Carlini loves her family. But when she returns to Lyndon Point, Washington, to help save their restaurant, she's not sure she's the right person for the job. She's spent her adult life avoiding her heritage. What she needs is a new chef to take the heat off her. Talented and experienced, Zachary Davenport seems to be the answer to her prayers. But he's also a handsome complication. Gabi has always put love on the back burner. Will Zach show her that love and family should always be on the menu?

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About the Author:

Born in Cuba, raised in Venezuela, Ginny Aiken discovered books young-she wrote her first at fifteen while training with the Ballets de Caracas. Wiser at sixteen, she burned it. Jobs as paralegal, reporter, choreographer, language teacher, and bookseller followed. A life as wife, mother of four sons and herder of their assorted friends brought her back to books and writing in search of her sanity. Now after forty books, she's a frequent speaker still searching for her sanity.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Lyndon Point, Washington State

With a heartfelt sigh, Gabriella Carlini stood up from where she'd sat for a moment's break. The top step of the back stoop to her parents' restaurant wasn't the finest place to rest, but it had been the best at that moment. She opened the kitchen door to Tony's and wrinkled her nose when the unpleasant tang struck her nostrils. She'd expected to find all kinds of disorganization when she got to Tony's, since her mother was at home caring for Gabi's ailing father instead of running the restaurant. But the actual state in which she'd found the place went far beyond a mess.

Food had spoiled when the teen part-timers her parents employed had refrigerated new deliveries and merely pushed the older supplies behind the new. Now she had bins of potatoes and onions gone bad, loaves of cheese and logs of pizza meats gone well beyond their sell-by dates and straight to spoiled, and the vegetable crispers were full of limp and unusable produce.

She should have come home when her mother called to tell her about her father's stroke, as she'd wanted to do. But Mama, as she still called her mother, in the old Italian way, had insisted Papa was receiving the best of care and she had everything under control.... How wrong she'd been!

Now, though, there was nothing to do but get back to work-as she'd been doing since nigh unto the crack of dawn. As she stepped inside, a flash of movement to her right in the alley out back caught her eye. When she turned to see what might have darted past the Dumpster, nothing struck her as out of the ordinary in the grubby concrete landscape. The thought of a rat turned her already iffy stomach. She scooted inside and slammed the steel door shut, then went straight to the massive metal refrigerator to throw out more of the old food.

With her hand outstretched to the refrigerator door's latch handle, she sent a prayer heavenward. "Lord, please don't let rats have taken up residence in the alley. I still have a number of trips' worth of trash to haul out before I can seek sanctuary in the kitchen. I'll clean out foul refrigerators any day, gladly wash sticky shelves, scrub grungy floors, but-ugh!" She shuddered at the thought of an encounter of the rodent kind.

"Hey, Miss Carlini."

She jumped inches off the ground. "Dylan!" Her heart pounded like a bass drum. "You shouldn't sneak up on anyone like that, you know?"

"Sorry, ma'am." The lanky nineteen-year-old with a painful-looking stud through his eyebrow and a map of crooked roadways carved through his quarter-inch-long buzz-cut hair came close. Then he waved toward the kitchen. "I'm so sorry about what happened earlier. I never knew how soon all that food would go bad, plus when the delivery truck brought new cheese and sausage and stuff.. well, I guess Kirstie and I didn't think about using the old stuff up first. If there's anything I can do..."

Feeling about a thousand years old every time he called her Miss Carlini-or worse, ma'am-Gabi let the fridge door close. Dylan had already apologized five times that morning. "Tell you what. First, call me Gabi. Then you have to remember that sauce spoils in five days, even in a fridge. And then you can make it up to me by emptying the last bin under the counter. We'll figure out the next step in our plan of attack after that."

Dylan darted his gaze toward the dining room, the bin and her. Gabi wondered if he might be weighing the merits of bailing on his part-time job. But then he squared his shoulders and gave a tight nod. "I'll go get a trash bag."

Thank You, Lord! Although she wished she didn't need to recruit the teen for the unpleasant task, she had little chance of getting the job done quickly without his help. They had to clean it all up before health department authorities showed up for a random check of the premises, which they were known to do. That could spell disaster. For Tony's.and for her family.

As she opened the refrigerator, she heard a sound behind her, near the kitchen door. She paused, listened.

Nothing.

"Strange." She must have imagined it. After taking-and holding-a deep breath, Gabi opened the crisper drawer.

The faint noise rang out again. Then yet again.

Ears alert to any further sound, she glanced toward the dining room. Three teenage part-timers were setting up for lunch, so she was on her own in the kitchen. Obviously something had made that noise...but what? Shoulders squared, she closed the refrigerator, then headed toward the back, pausing when she reached the door, praying for protection from rats. The rapid-fire metallic tap-tap-tap, scratch-scratch-scratch started up again.

Braced for whatever she might find, she very slowly pressed the door handle, then yanked.

"Oh, my."

The sight on the other side stunned her. She never could have envisioned the little dog, part Jack Russell terrier, part unidentified shaggy, with long floppy ears, luminous brown eyes and, as a finishing touch, a thin C-shaped tail, which it immediately tucked between its legs. It shivered.

Even on this hot June morning.

As Gabi stared down at the filthy, bedraggled mutt, unsure of what to do next, the poor animal shook harder. She took a step forward.

It dropped, then rolled onto its back, four paws in the air, still quaking without pause. That's when she realized how undernourished he was. Every rib tented saggy skin that showed blotches here and there, where patches of fur had either fallen or been yanked out. She didn't want to think along the latter lines, to imagine what kind of altercation might have caused the bare spots.

"Easy, boy," she crooned. "I won't let anyone hurt you. Let me come closer, now, to see what's up with those sores. I only want to help."

She dropped to her knees, aware that even her five-foot-two height would intimidate the little guy. Scooting closer, inch by inch, she continued cooing softly to keep him calm. After a couple of minutes, once she'd reached him, she noted how even more of the angry red blotches mapped his belly and scrawny chest. A bloodencrusted scrape on his right rear thigh looked like it might be the result of another animal's bite.

After a silent prayer, she extended a hand, not touching the dog, waiting to see if he would accept her. He froze. The shivers stopped. His brown eyes stared at her with laser focus. As she lowered her fingers to just a whisper away, he reached out and licked her palm.

"Hello there," she murmured. He licked again. And again.

Then he flipped up onto his four paws and went for her face, apparently intent on returning her show of kindness with a multitude of kisses. She backed up just out of his tongue's reach, not knowing the state of his health. She did, however, rub him under the side of his chin. He melted again at her touch.

From this close vantage point, he looked worse than before. He was half-starved, filthy, his coat matted beyond rescue by a good groomer, and all the skin she now saw between clumps of scruffy hair appeared red and irritated. She had to do something for the little guy.

"But I can't take you home with me," she said, more for her benefit than his. She sat at his side, taking a momentary break in the rubbing caresses. "Mama has enough on her hands with Papa's recovery, and I'm going back to Cleveland as soon as possible. My landlord made a huge deal on the lease about pets-none allowed."

The dog nudged her hand with his moist black button nose. From deep in his throat came a string of growly conversational sounds, at the end of which he cocked his head to one side and stared.

When she didn't respond as he seemed to want, he let out a whiny whimper. His killer stare never let up.

"What am I going to do with you?"

He again nudged her hand, then began to lick fingers she figured stank of the garbage she'd dumped. "You're beyond hungry, aren't you? And...you know what? I can do much better than smelly fumes on my hands."

She settled him back on the floor and headed for the refrigerator. She rummaged inside, grabbed one of the five-pound chubs of hamburger she'd kept front and center after she'd disposed of the spoiled stuff, and verified the expiration date on the plastic wrapping.

"Perfect." She glanced at her new buddy. "You're going to love a chunk of this. Trust me."

In a few minutes, the scent of browning wholesome meat filled the kitchen. A clean, stainless-steel mixing bowl would do well as the pup's new dish. He piped up, letting out a handful of excited yips as he bounced in the air like a dirty, four-legged bouncy ball.

Gabi marveled at his spirited display. How could a creature as forsaken as this one muster so much energy? He was little more than stretched skin and sharp bone. As she smiled, the word indomitable came to mind.

When the meat had cooked through, she served up the dog's savory meal, stirred it to cool enough to make it safe for consumption and then set it down on the back stoop. After all, health ordinances did forbid animals in commercial kitchens.

She had to decide what to do with the half-starved stray. The half-starved stray who at that moment was eating hamburger as fast as he could, letting out appreciative grunts as he wolfed it all down.

She sat next to him to think through her dilemma.

"Hey, Miss...er...Gabi- Whoa!" Dylan caught the door he'd flung open to keep it from slamming into Gabi. And the dog.

The dog surprised her when he quit licking the now-empty bowl and scurried into her lap. He then growled a low, deep warning at the teen.

Dylan respected the threat with hands-to-shoulders in the universal sign of surrender. "All right. I got it. It's okay." Without looking away from the tiny canine, he spoke to Gabi. "Where'd he come from?"

"He scratched at the door. He's starving-literally."

The teen's look came full of doubt. "I don't think feeding him's such a great idea. He might get the wrong impression." Dylan gave her a questioning look. "Or maybe...not so wrong?"

She shrugged.

He went on. "My mom's always said once you feed a stray, you're pretty much stuck with it for life."

"That better not be the case this time." She sighed. "I can't keep him."

"So what are you going to do with him?"

Her question precisely. "Not sure yet. I'm thinking."

"The animal shelter's got a new director." Dylan fingered the steel ball on the stud through his eyebrow. "He's supposed to have fixed it up, fired the slackers, hired new people, scrubbed even the ceiling and turned it into a nokill place."

"And you know all this because.?"

He quirked his lips. "It was a real big deal in town a couple of months ago. The new director came up from Sacramento with all kinds of new ideas. Some people didn't like it, others loved it. But everybody had something to say about it."

"If you're sure it's a no-kill shelter, then it's probably the best place for this little guy."

"Unless you keep-"

"I know." She sighed again. She wished she could. Something about the ragtag critter drew her right in. Maybe it was his ready friendliness and overwhelming trust. Or maybe his eyes. "I can't. I really can't. I'm going back to my life in Cleveland as soon as things are settled here for my parents, and I can't keep pets in my rental."

"That's too bad." He gestured at the stray. "He really likes you."

The dog barked as though he agreed with Dylan. And with Gabi. The unexpectedly likable stray stared at her with his enormous brown eyes beneath that tangle of muddy brown hair. He tugged at her heart, but she couldn't change reality.

"Okay, then. That's the plan." She cradled the scrap of ratty fur and bones in her arms and then stood. "I'll take him over to the shelter. Can you hold down the fort while I'm gone? It won't take long."

After Dylan handed her the purse she kept on a shelf near the back door, Gabi hurried down the street to the old shelter building, stray in her arms. For years the place had been known as a dismal pit, populated with unwanted pets captured by Animal Control. It had been in need of a different kind of someone to take over the reins. She hoped this director knew what he was doing. The pooch in her arms and all the other discards deserved it.

Her little guy's pink tongue darted out and he licked her chin.

Tears welled in Gabi's eyes. He was going to make someone a great pal. Too bad it wouldn't be her.

For a thirty-year-old failure, Zachary Davenport figured he was finally getting it right. He turned off the water at the steel sink where they bathed the small and mid-size dogs relinquished to the Lyndon Point Animal Shelter and grabbed the towel on top of the tall stack of clean linen. A hint of the crisp, familiar scent of chlorine bleach in the fabric struck his senses, and he smiled in satisfaction.

When he'd first arrived to assume his position at the shelter, the only thing he'd smelled had been ammonia from unkempt animal cages. Shocked to the core, he'd fired every last employee and declared war against the sad conditions. He'd hired a new crew, invited a group of caring volunteers to join their efforts and bought all the commercial disinfectant cleaner he could get his hands on. Armed with scrub brushes and hoses, he and his team had set about to transform the shelter. His furry-haired charges might have been unwanted and mistreated in their previous situations, but now that they were under his care, they would have a much better quality of life.

He wiped up the water he'd splashed and dripped with his used towel before tossing it in the wheeled white-cloth laundry bin. As the managing director he didn't have to shoulder the minutiae of the rescue's daily chores, but he loved animals, and if he went too long without contact with the dogs and cats, he missed them.

He loved what he was doing these days.

What he didn't love were the occasional memories and jabs of guilt that struck when he least expected them. Zach wondered if he'd ever forget, if he would ever put his past behind him and really move on-

"Hey, boss!" Claudia called from the front desk, mercifully dragging him back to the present. "We've got a new one-just walked in-and he's cute, too. But I have to hit the road if I'm going to get to the orthodontist in time for Eva's appointment."

"Things are under control here, so go ahead." He hung up the waterproof apron and snagged an intake folder from his office on the way to the reception area. "Really, Claudia, there's nothing to worry about. As long as Oscar's still out back, he and I can handle whatever comes in while you're gone." He waved the folder as he pushed through the swinging door. "See? I'm prepared."

Claudia smiled, slung her bag over her shoulder and walked to the door. "See ya in a couple of hours!"

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9780373878703: A Daughter's Homecoming (Love Inspired)

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ISBN 10:  0373878702 ISBN 13:  9780373878703
Publisher: Love Inspired, 2014
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